(Yes, I’m ditching the one-word post titles.)
There’s usually a story like this every December. This year, the Daily Telegraph reports that Australian astronomer Dave Reneke has calculated that Jesus was born on 17th June, 2 BC. I expect the science is all right, but what I do know is that the integration with the Bible – much vaunted in the article – is flawed.
Like Reneke, I don’t see this as undermining faith, but as boosting it – if only the theological side were right. It has long been suggested that the star the Magi followed was some kind of planetary conjunction, so to posit such an event between Venus and Jupiter in the night skies over Palestine at around the right time is nothing new.
My problem comes in making an assumption about dating Jesus’ birth from it. The article claims (without substantiation) that the best guesses for Jesus’ birth are in the 3 BC to 1 AD region. This surprised me, but perhaps scholarship has moved on from what I previously learnt, where a date nearer 6 BC was thought likely. However, the real fault is using the appearance of the star as a marker for the actual birth.
Why? Well, it’s interesting that Mr Reneke claims to work from Matthew’s Gospel, which tells the story of the Magi. He wrongly assumes they arrive (just like children’s nativity plays) at the time of the birth, along with the shepherds. You’ve seen the tableaux of a crowded manger scene, you know what I mean.
However, there is clear evidence in Matthew 2 that the Magi arrive later. First of all, in the Greek Jesus is no longer described as a baby but as a young child – a toddler, perhaps. Moreover, when Herod the Great hears about the birth of a new ‘King of the Jews’, his psychopathic order is to slaughter all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two. It fits with the thought that Jesus had not been born in the immediately preceding time to the Magi’s arrival.
Others add further evidence that I don’t find convincing. They point out that in Matthew, Jesus, Mary and Joseph are now living in a house, not at the back of an inn, as when he was born, according to Luke. This implies they have moved on to a home, probably belonging to one of Joseph’s relatives. This evidence is unnecessary and also flawed. As Kenneth Bailey pointed out many years ago, Luke doesn’t use the Greek word for ‘inn’ in chapter 2 of his Gospel – he uses that later, when he recounts the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The word in chapter 2 isn’t the normal one for ‘house’ either, but it is more likely meant to be that, given the importance of hospitality in the culture. It would have been unthinkable for Joseph’s family not to put up him and his pregnant wife, even if it meant sharing the space with the family animals. It then appears from Matthew 2 that they remain there for a considerable season after the birth, rather than moving in with the relatives from a commercial inn. I suspect the KJV translators were too enamoured with the coaching inns of their day, and it became a traditional English translation.
But either way, I am convinced Jesus was more like a toddler by the time the Magi arrived. Dave Reneke may put the conjunction at 17 June 2 BC, but that theologically presupposes a birth a year or two earlier than that. If the science is right, then my old 6 BC date is out of the window – although one would need to bear in mind what we know about the regularity of the Roman taxation census every fourteen years, so I’m not ready to ditch it completely yet.
The real problem with the findings and the reporting of the research is a failure of dialogue between science and theology. The last thing I would do is question Reneke’s credibility as an astronomer, and I have no problem whatsoever with his motives. However, a little conversation with a New Testament scholar would have got us away from sensational claims about finding Jesus’ date of birth. We know it wasn’t 25th December, but Reneke’s research brings us no nearer knowing the actual date.
Worse than this – and this is not Reneke’s fault – is a glaring example of dumbing-down in the Telegraph. It’s a newspaper that usually rails against such attitudes, but the article contains a terrible example of it. Paragraph 3 reads:
If the team is correct, it would mean Jesus was a Gemini, not a Capricorn as previously believed.
Oh, spare me. Not only does this pander to contemporary credulity about astrology, it also risks the popular idiocy of muddling astronomy and astrology. My father reads the Telegraph. He is a member of the British Astronomical Association. If he has seen this piece, he will suddenly find himself in need of medication for hypertension.